Gender balance when creating icons


(Philip Durbin) #1

When creating icons we should attempt to maintain gender balance. I was reminded of this recently when seeing a tweet by Harvard Women In Technology:

@NounProjectDev @nounproject when you search for icons like “promotion” there’s only 1 image of a woman, can you do better?

(and it’s an image of a promotional gift, not a work-related promotion) in the first 250 options that come up, stopped counting after that

I got curious and visited https://thenounproject.com/search/?q=promotion and here’s what I saw:

I have to agree that men are more represented in the icons above. Honestly, as a man, I don’t think I would have even noticed, sadly enough, if someone hadn’t pointed it out.

On a related note, from the same group at Harvard I learned about the Re-Search browser plugin which hopes to makes image search gender balanced.


(Belen) #2

I am a woman and I wouldn’t have noticed myself! I think our biases run deep and most of the time are unconscious. It’s cool there are groups out there calling them out and making them visible.

Thanks for posting this :slight_smile:


(simonv3) #3

Some questions I have:

What does an icon that is gender neutral look like?

What about an icon that is an icon for a woman, but doesn’t imply that what sets women apart is that they wear dresses? What about men who wear dresses culturally?

Iconography is hard - I think my default assumption for most of those icons would have been that they’re gender neutral (except for the ones with the short hair and the suits). But - like @belenbarrospena says - biases run deep and most of the time are unconscious.


(Philip Durbin) #4

Excellent point. Let’s not simply throw eyelashes and pink bows into icons either, as Hillary Price reminds us in this epic Rhymes with Orange comic strip:


(Sarah L Duncan) #5

I don’t know how to denote things in a gender neutral way either, but I’d be interested to know- if you saw any of the above icons on a bathroom door, not just those with a suit, wouldn’t you assume it was a men’s room? I would for almost all of them. I think that what seems neutral in a culture is often actually a representation of the type of person who has more power.

Sometimes I think we’re better off representing lots of variety rather than nothing; give some of the images longer hair, give some of them curlier hair so they’re not all so white looking, give some dresses, give some a hijab, etc. etc. etc.


(simonv3) #6

I just want to highlight this because I think it’s so important and spot on.

Could we do a little “design-a-thon” where we make versions of these icons, or any other set of icons, and submit more diverse versions of them?


(Allan Nordhøy) #7

You are increasing entropy when you make a female specific icon.

Both visually, and conceptually.

This is a two-fold problem.

Primarily because it is contrary to the nature of pictograms.
Secondarily because what is expected of a female icon, is that it is female specific.

When you “balance” for gender, you have to take into account which traits are tied to them.

The idea that you could iconify a woman, without using traits available to men, is,
if possible, perhaps not what you wanted to achieve…

It is no less discriminatory to use things with stronger ties to gender to separate them,
to the contrary. For reasons you would want to, good, but it goes both ways.

On the subject of how one views the female, one could, for equally ulterior motives, subjugate females to pure genitalia, perhaps making less of a good icon, but nevertheless be faced with the same premise.

Is it furthermore a trans persons genitalia,? and if it is/cloud be,
that is a context you would have to be aware of.
Which all in all doesn’t lend itself to being communicated additionally in a simple icon.

The subset of trans people with changed genitalia, that just don’t want to
be the opposite sex, is not then a primary concern over, say, malformed
genitalia, or people without, for reasons conscious or not.

When the exacerbation (:wink: stops offending people previously adverse to such depictions,
(illuminating / eliminating some level of diversity,)
sex as a habitation is bound to be more occupying a focus than that of a
depiction of genitalia could convey to the contrary.

What I’m getting at here is that adding genders to icons, adds to the problem.

Precisely, was the problem at it’s visual nature (level) beforehand, just as it becomes afterwards.

Imagine for a challenge of reversal, a gender neutral icon, which promotion conjured up an unbalanced
mental image. That idea being one at odds with either genetical, or socially distributed vectors.
Is this not an issue all in the mind of the onlooker?

To direct the attention to where the designer may become as blind as the people they are thought not to lead astray:

… there’s only 1 image of a woman, can you do better?

With enough effort you can take what is distinctly male, and employ the same level of abstraction needed to see a female icon as a generic depiction of promotion.

Some of these bring the question genderisation along with them in an uphill struggle to put the burden of proof, a-priory of the outside the mind of and on the one who looks for females, per-haps in the wrong places.

The amount of females is diamentral to how many men you see.

Some of these are not men more-so than the black ones are negroid.
For the ones that show additional detail, was it the cranial features or length of ligaments or colour that decided the issue of race? Was it the western clothing? Was that an issue? Is it?

Is it possible to design around this without making it more an apparent an omission, or the same race to the bottom. One is an at best ever increasing amount of problems, that when solved, solidify only the minute threshold where the line is drawn, in making it all the more more apparent. The other is to avoid what makes gender balance an issue. That is both an not being able to represent in a way that is presentable, but at the basis of which, an imbalance.

How many proponents of races not approximated into white and black are there? Is that a solvable issue?

If you saw an amalgamation of a group you are in, or see others as, in all the ones that weren’t a gender unrelated to you, as one could expect to be the case for all the ones that weren’t specific, then surely you could be conditioned into seeing something else by the active use of colour.

For as long as monochromatic technicality stands in the way of that, the overshadowing issue is the mind being drawn to colour. Given more than one colour, there is visual chaos, which is linked to stress.
This is not a consideration predisposed in how icons are made, or used, but how they have to be seen.

At a social, yet graspable level, is the diskette a good icon of saving something, or does it contribute to the use of archaic archival formats?

Sought solved through making icons a battlefield, loading
them with unnecessary detail, is bad design functionally, for worse interpretation socially.
Who would want to do that?

It isn’t always a bad idea. For times when you want to shake up peoples mental
imagery, it is good, but in general, no. In times you may feel compelled to do so,
I think it produces design with an expiry date. Maybe becoming dated to the counterproductive
effect of tying all such variations to a political aim.

The top right one belongs to as few categories as possible. But next to it is a coathanger.
Or maybe a coathanger you are supposed to pick up.
Or maybe you are supposed to sit up if seen in a right-to-left context.
Maybe it has to do with growth. Eating makes you taller? Is it a fat person? The shoulders are broader, yet rounder, so is it the opposite sex? In relation to promotion my guess would be on “wage-gap”.

Certainly something it would be hard to depict in any other way than the coathanger being the woman. Even if that balance is often used with nefarious or even good intent, to support unscientific claims.
At the risk of instilling a prejudice overall, where it seeks to remove it. Iconisation can not alter or represent reality alone. It is the person cultus.

At the most basic level of generality, the impersonal depiction is in my view a gender neutral one.
Notwithstanding as a proposed goal to strive for, but a logical extension of where you find yourself
having rid the visual design of unnecessary detail.
Those with a penchant for purely aesthetic detail, will find it is not gender based.

To the point where it is, scaling up the resolution of your subject, adding human qualities that
are not androgynous would be a logical extension.
For worse when it still becomes a conscious interpretation of faces, and inherently
obstructive to what it is that makes pictograms work; Simplicity.

As such, there is even a positive coefficient in always using what makes them the best icons.
The more often and concise, the better the result.
It is the creation of a stereotype.

So, given a (for purpose of argument maybe even universally recognised), gender neutral icon of man,
would one add the icon for female or male alongside it or alone to signify gender?

That is a trade-off i find to pan out against doing so in most scenarios i could think of, but an interesting venue to explore.
It begs the question of designing in the ability to make alterations to that effect.

TL;DR
Gender neutral iconography is a corollary amalgam.